Sarah Kane in Context

Christopher Innes on the first collection of essays to focus on a single British playwright of the 1990s

July 15, 2010

Sarah Kane's eruption on to the London stage in 1995 with Blasted, which provoked almost universal outrage among critics, established her as a major figure among British playwrights of that decade. And her suicide just four years later, which caused most reviewers to revise their opinions, effectively canonised her.

Since then, her stature has increased as her plays have been performed across Europe and in America, perhaps more often than any works of her British contemporaries. Of these, only Kane and Martin Crimp have so far had critical studies devoted specifically to their work. And indeed, the amount of attention paid to Kane has been immediate and far more significant: she has not only been a central figure in at least two overviews of British 1990s theatre, but she is the subject of a critical study by Graham Saunders, which appeared barely three years after her death, and there has even been a complete book on just one play, Blasted, by Helen Iball (2008). This volume, Sarah Kane in Context, is also the first collection of essays on any British playwright from the 1990s - and it contains some strong pieces, in particular by Aleks Sierz, Clare Wallace and Peter Campbell (the director of an American production of Phaedra's Love).

The mere fact of this amount of critical focus stands as a self-reinforcing guarantee of Kane's theatrical importance. At the same time, the amount of critical writing by far outweighs her actual dramatic output, which consists of precisely three full-length plays, a small number of extremely short early monologues, and two pieces of dialogue that dispense with scenery, stage direction, plot and increasingly even with character, plus one film script (the subject of an interesting essay here). However revolutionary Kane's plays were in their time, this is a rather modest oeuvre for so much attention. As a result, the 16 essays in this volume overlap in major and revealing ways.

All the contributors have written about Kane's work before - Dan Rebellato, Sierz and Saunders most extensively. But they also cite each other's work. Practically every essay cites Saunders' book multiple times, and many of them also quote Sierz's definitive study. What emerges is a "school" of Sarah Kane criticism, self-aggrandising and self-promoting, but also curiously isolated.

The "context" of the title is revealed in the introduction as theoretical: Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan. But there are also interesting relationships traced with Antonin Artaud and with the author of the concept of post-dramatic theatre, Hans-Thies Lehmann. However, the more expected type of context is missing. There is very little reference to the other playwrights of Kane's time - one play by Mark Ravenhill (mentioned just once), one play of Crimp's (mentioned twice) - and relatively few comparisons with the preceding generation: one play each by Sarah Daniels and by Caryl Churchill, a couple by Howard Barker, and two by Edward Bond (who is also given a voice as "postscript" to the volume). Even Kane's close friend David Greig is mentioned only with respect to his published preface to Kane's Collected Plays, ignoring context such as the point that Greig's play San Diego (2003) is arguably a reflection on Kane's suicide.

Indeed, the only playwright to be discussed extensively in connection with Kane's work is Samuel Beckett - the subject of Saunders' essay here, and referred to in several other essays. Arguably Kane's work does not need to be viewed in the context of other British playwrights, given the widely read overview by Sierz that coined the phrase "In-Yer-Face Theatre", or the 2008 volume Cool Britannia? British Political Drama in the 1990s, edited by Saunders. But there is also no inclusion of any biographical context. Not even the date of Kane's suicide is given (although Mary Luckhurst is ridiculed for having got the date wrong). This in turn reinforces the solipsistic impression of Sarah Kane in Context.

The volume certainly contributes to our understanding of Kane. But far more to the point, it has a subtext that exposes all too revealingly some of the problems of current academic criticism: self-reflexive, self-referential, self-promoting. And something of the same qualities is reflected in the structure of the volume. The essays are officially divided into two sections: "Surrounding voices" (literary influences, politics) and "Subjectivity". Yet there are continual duplications that make the distinctions irrelevant: each section includes essays on Artaud, and ends with essays setting Kane's plays in a wider context, while oddly, the staging of her plays is discussed in the second, "subjective" section. The voice of Kane (which is the title of the essay opening the "subjective" half of this volume) becomes the voice of criticism.

Sarah Kane in Context

Edited by Laurens de Vos and Graham Saunders.

Manchester University Press

240pp, £55.00

ISBN 9780719077395

Published 3 May 2010

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